In 1990, the movie ‘Pump Up the Volume’ was released. Starring Christian Slater as a pirate radio dj Hard Harry exposing the hypocrisy and bullshit of that era, it was a favorite of mine back then. Recently, it showed up on the HBOMax streaming service and I watched it for the first time in decades. And to say that my reaction was deep and personal is putting it mildly.
The opening lines here give you a pretty good idea of how things were back then, and how they were fucked up though extremely mild in comparison to today.
“You ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?
You know that feeling, that the whole country is, like one inch from saying, “That’s it! Forget it!”
Just think about it, everything’s polluted, the environment, the government, the schools, you name it.
Speaking of schools, I was, uh, walking the hallowed halls the other day and I asked myself, “Is there life after high school?”
- From the movie ‘Pump Up the Volume’ written and directed by Alan Moyle
I want to start off with what life was like in 1990 for a teenager, such as myself. In 1990, I turned sixteen though without any ‘sweet sixteen’ or even ‘Sixteen Candles’ hoopla. At that time, I was just really trying to stay under the radar in life. At the start of 1990 I would have been a sophomore in high school and it was the first year since sixth grade I didn’t have an Advanced or Gifted class. I dropped my last two of those my freshman year because of the bullying-bullshit I was going through in those classes though in reality I was a shit-ton smarter than most of those preppy assholes ever would be.
In 1990, I just wanted to write. And luckily I had my best English teacher my sophomore year, Mrs. Sena of the house slippers and Elvis Presley picture on her classroom wall (she wore slippers in class because her feet hurt and she loved Elvis). She also taught me how to put a sentence together and how to string a bunch of them into paragraphs and essays that made me get nothing but straight A’s on all my writing assignment for the rest of my high school days. That’s when I think I really began to dig into the idea of making it as a writer.
The thing I remember most about that time, 1990 thereabouts, is the extreme pressure to conform to some bullshit ideal. To be smart, successful, agreeable, and to be on the fast-track to success, and most of all, to know who you were. I call bullshit on that because no teenager would ever know who they are because they haven’t lived long enough and two, who the fuck cares? Because in response to the question at the end of the quote at the beginning of this, there is life after high school. And it gets worse as it gets better though that balance is usually out-of-whack most of the time.
Now before I go any further, I want to say this: we were NOT having the conversations back then like we are now about things like mental health, suicide, sexuality, sexual orientation, or anything of real substance. Back then, if a young person managed to keep their shit together and not lose it or blow their lights out, they were said to have good ‘coping skills’. That was a high compliment back then though it was really absolute total fucking bullshit.
There are two parts of the movie that tear me up now. The first is when Harry receives a letter from a young man asking if he should commit suicide. Harry calls him up and tries to talk him out of it but fails. Like I said in the previous paragraph, we didn’t have the words back then to talk people out of suicide. So many people back then, like now, feel that suicide is a solution. Back then, if you even mentioned it the shit would come down on you, though. It was not met with the level of compassion that it is today, which I’m forever grateful for.
(I’ve never been suicidal and not because I was afraid of roasting in Hell for an eternity, but because I was terrified if I even thought about it and the assholes in my life got a whiff of that, or heaven forbid if I did it, those same assholes would follow me into Hell and torment me for an eternity. This is why I felt like if no one wanted to be around me or hear what I had to say then I just wanted to be left alone to live in my own imaginary world.)
After learning of that young man’s suicide in the movie, Harry goes on a hell of a rant about suicide being crude and honest about it at the same time. Then he says something that jumped out at me:
“At least pain is real.”
In a world where it felt like nothing was real except if some high-and-mighty asshole said it was, acknowledging your own pain as real and your own was a big thing. Then Harry encourages his listeners to do something crazy and loud and plays my favorite song in the movie ‘Kick Out the Jams’ by Bad Brains featuring Henry Rollins, a song I still blast in my ears when I’m really pissed off about something.
Then Harry opens up another letter and calls the letter writer. This time, the letter writer is a young man who opens up about being gay (though he doesn’t say the word ‘gay’) and being abused by several other high school boys. Back then, if gay kids were outed they were horribly abused and hated on. And transgendered kids… well they were hiding out in the basement and the word ‘transgender’ was years away from being said out loud. This why laws barring the word ‘gay’ and also the attempted torture of transgender youth here in my home state of Texas boil my blood and make me want to rage and breath nuclear fire onto those right-wing Republican assholes. So many young people suffered in silence back then and for motherfuckers to want to drive them back into silence or just kill them… hell fucking no and never again!
Looking back on this film I realize this is where a large part of my own silence came from, and how I learned to solidify those walls in my twenties to deal with what I went through then (watching my mother slowly and painfully die of cancer). And right now, this is why it warms my cold, re-heated leftover Generation X heart to think that someone reading my words might get pissed off at me. I hope they do and that being pissed off also makes them uncomfortable enough to feel just a razor-sharp shred of shame, guilt, and remorse.
Because that’s another thing in the movie Harry rants about: being ashamed. Feeling shame for things you don’t have to feel shame for is so fucked-up wrong in so many ways. I have felt shame and guilt for things I had no business feeling that way for and that’s why I feel Harry’s rage and fury against that. It’s not wrong to feel anything at all, or to want to speak out against things that are wrong.
And yes, I’m going to freely admit here with very loud pride that my reaction to this film after thirty-two years is deeply personal. It was personal back then though I didn’t have the words or the ability to channel my anger, rage, and pain into the written word like I’m doing now. And no, I’m not going to let any asshole off the hook who told me I had nothing to talk about, or bitch about.
To any young person of high-school age reading this: I’m sorry for my generation giving in to silence as badly as we did. And I’m proud of all of you for standing and fighting for what’s right. For all the students in Florida yesterday who walked out of their schools to protest the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in the Florida Legislature. To David Hogg, Emma Gonzales, and all the young people who formed the organization ‘March for Our Lives’ and have kept it going despite death threats from the gun lobby. To Greta Thunberg who has inspired millions of young people to strike for climate change. To Malala Yousafzi for fighting for the right of all children to an education, especially girls. And to all the young people online who have, and are fighting the good fight against those who would silence you, or worse, deny your right to exist as you truly are. Please know that I see you, and I stand with you.
And as Harry said at the end of the movie, “Talk hard.”